The Dark Side of Innovative Teams

Over the past few weeks my colleague and I have been reflecting back on some experiences in which we’ve worked building team dynamics and unlocking “team creativity.” These teams had very diverse individuals: engineers, programmers, designers, financial analysts, and even lawyers. We’ve all heard how interdisciplinary teams are key to unlocking creativity and innovation; and they are, we believe, but not by themselves. Putting all these people in the same room may very well temper innovation if important requirements have not been met.

The most recurrent issues we’ve observed working with interdisciplinary teams are: narrow-minded points of view; different “languages;” and diversity in goals, expectations, and motivations.  While these observations may be inherently part of any team dynamic, we’ve noticed these become even more of a problem in teams looking to unlock their “team creativity and innovation.” We’ve come up with a list of requirements we now are starting to enforce on our clients that are looking to improve their teams. The more diverse a team is, the more these requirements are necessary:

Well-rounded individuals. Customer empathy is important, but team empathy is just as important, if not even more important. You want to have product managers with some coding experience, with marketing knowledge, and with a sense for design. He or she knows how the engineer thinks, how the marketer thinks, and how the designer thinks. Of course in the real world it is very hard to find such well-rounded employees. That is why we created “empathy warm ups.” They work in pairs for 5 minutes mentoring each other in mentor-apprentice roles, and then switch. Our goal is to create “inter-disciplinary people,” not just interdisciplinary teams.

Common language. This reminds me of the story of the six blind men and the elephant I heard once from one of my bosses. In it, the first man touched the tail of the elephant and thought it was a rope, the second man touched a leg and was convinced that it was a tree, and so on, each with a different perspective of reality. None could see the big picture and work towards the same goal. Working with individuals with no common language may just feel like an elephant, people get frustrated because the team “can’t seem to get it.” As part of our workshops we spend a good amount of time building this common language in organizations. It can, and should, be different for every company, but it needs to be defined, and that takes effort.

Commitment and availability. We’ve been learning this the hard way. It is not enough with having the right people, with the right vision, and speaking the same language if they do not even have the time to dedicate themselves to the project. This is especially a problem at large corporations where individuals are already part of a different team, where they already have other responsibilities, and allocation of time is predicated on bureaucracy. True lean and fast experimentation is a function of the time team members can dedicate to the specific project. Make sure everybody participating in an interdisciplinary team is truly committed to the team and accountable for a piece of the work.

Team creativity and innovation are crucial in every organization seeking to win in today’s ever-changing markets, but certain requirements ought to be in place if teams are to perform at their best. While these three suggestions may sound quite simple, we’ve find them to be very powerful. We would love to hear what are some additional challenges you’ve faced in innovative teams, and what has been done to overcome those issues.

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 The Dark Side of Innovative TeamsSalvael Ortega holds a BS in Business Management, Business Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University (BYU). Salvael is the Associate Director of the BYU Innovation Research Lab, and also Co-President and Founder of the BYU Innovation Academy.

Salvael Ortega




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No Comments

  1. Jay Oza on April 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Good post.

    You gave me a word that I had not thought about before: “Inter-disciplinary people.” This what I am trying to do to market my company to startups as 5ToolGroup. For me 5 Tools for innovation consist of sales, marketing, partnerships, customer development and agile/methodology.

    • Salvael Ortega on April 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm

      Thank Jay. I’m glad I was able to inspire some new thoughts. A healthy and empathetic team dynamic, we have found, is at the root of organizational innovation and crucial to get the conversations moving forward, especially at the startup level.

  2. David Hunt, PE on April 6, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Diversity of experience. Diversity of perspective. Where have I heard that before?

    Diversity of what?

    • Salvael Ortega on April 7, 2013 at 11:15 am

      David, thank you for your comment and for raising some interesting questions.

      The main point I make on this post is that there are elements beyond diversity that are needed in team creative dynamics. Diversity alone can very well hinder innovation. “Team empathy,” we’ve found, is just as valuable as customer empathy. I tried to briefly explain on this post how we’ve attempted to overcome the challenges of diversity paralysis. I hope they at least spark an interesting conversation. I’d love to hear your observations on this topic.

      Thanks again,

  3. Ann Seltz on April 8, 2013 at 8:03 am

    A key to helping staff to be empathetic/sympathetic to other team members is to provide workshops or retreats where they change roles–so product managers become salespeople, content developers become marketers–you get the idea. Then the next step is to create interdisciplinary teams to vision new products/services and solve internal challenges to improving products or services. We used this process to great advantage in a fast-growing media company, conceiving and launching a wide range of new products.

    • Salvael Ortega on April 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm


      Thank you for sharing those insights!


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